Thursday, September 22, 2005

Engineering Education

Go read this article from Tech Central Station from an engineering drop-out.

Have you read it?

Okay, here are my comments. The author makes many good points, but isn't quite in a position to make complete recommendations (not that I am either, but combined...).

In my experience the following qualities are required to succeed in obtaining an engineering degree:

1. above-average intelligence
2. the ability to learn on your own
3. the ability to self-motivate
4. willingness to give up an extensive social-life

Douglas Kern was found lacking in 2. This ties into his recognition that engineering teaching is generally poor. This is true and should be changed but won't. Why? Because university engineering programs are not about education they are about research, and the skill-sets required of professors for the two often conflict. It's not about how well you can teach the students, it's about how well you can pull in the research dollars for the school.

Meanwhile, my friends majoring in the liberal arts pulled dandy grades while studying little. "You just wait," I thought, gazing upon them like the ant regarding the grasshopper in the summer. "You party and blow off homework now, but in ten years, you'll be making merely wonderful money as investment bankers and consultants, while I'll be getting laid off from a great job at General Electric."

Here is the second problem with engineering education. Oddly, it has little to do with the engineering part of it. The problem is that liberal arts degrees are so easy to get as to be worthless (except from a hoop-jumping perspective). None of the liberal arts classes I took taught any sort of useful skill. We (my fellow engineering students and I) had a simple formula to relate the difficulty (and hence the usefulness) of engineering classes to liberal arts ones: one engineering class = four liberal arts classes. This should give you an idea of the relative difficulty. The problem is not with the left-hand side of the equation, but with the right. If liberal arts classes actually taught something and required effort, then engineering classes would not look so bad in comparison.

To a certain extent, engineering classes are difficult because they have to be. Future engineers need to learn the required skill-set to do their job without getting anyone killed. No liberal arts program prepares students for a life-or-death environment and they have thus relaxed their requirements to worthlessness. The fault here lies with liberal arts education programs, not engineering.

Here are Kern's prescriptions for improvement:

If you want more engineers in the United States, you must find a way for America's engineering programs to retain students like, well, me: people smart enough to do the math and motivated enough to at least take a bite at the engineering apple, but turned off by the overwhelming coursework, low grades, and abysmal teaching. Find a way to teach engineering to verbally oriented students who can't learn math by sense of smell. Demand from (and give to) students an actual mastery of the material, rather than relying on bogus on-the-curve pseudo-grades that hinge upon the amount of partial credit that bored T.A.s choose to dole out. Write textbooks that are more than just glorified problem set manuals. Give grades that will make engineering majors competitive in a grade-inflated environment. Don't let T.A.s teach unless they can actually teach.

Fair enough. But, as stated above, the "overwhelming coursework" exists for a reason. Those are the skills needed to make an engineer competent enough not to kill people. You can't really reduce that. This is especially true of upper-level classes which the author would have never been experienced due to his dropping out.

Another problem with his comments is that the skills required to succeed in getting an engineering education are basically the same as those required for being an engineer. You can't just dumb things down and serve everything on a platter because that would not create good engineers. What he calls "weeding out undesirables with absurd boot-camp courses" is not always a bad thing. Many people are simply not cut-out to be engineers and the goal should not be to keep those people; it should be to keep those who have the skills but are struggling due to inadequate teaching.

Note that the boot-camp style of engineering education serves to create strong bonds between students. Engineering students (justifiably [IMAO]) look-down on those who take the easier liberal arts path. But if you've read this far, you know that:).


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JR said...

My experience was that one guy in my Modern Physics class, that I hung with, couldn't hang and dropped out to be a boxboy at the local supermarket. Nothing wrong with that, but kind of awkward everytime I see him. Guess where many of the other E-school dropouts went? That's right - J-school. Think these guys don't have a grudge? Thus the state of journalism.

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